Stephen Wade (musician)
Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s, Stephen Wade was exposed to a number of vernacular musicians who had moved north to the city from the Mississippi Delta and the Southern Appalachians.
Wade started playing blues guitar at age eleven and eventually switched to the banjo. In 1972, he began studying with Fleming Brown at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. By the mid-‘70s, Brown passed his classes over to Wade to teach. In 1972, Wade also began an association with Brown’s teacher, old-time, Kentucky-born radio singer Doc Hopkins. Under the tutelage of these two mentors, Wade immersed himself in the banjo, traditional music, and American folklore. Later, he traveled across the United States to research American humor and folk tales and meet with folk musicians in the field.
By the late ‘70s, he had developed a theatrical performance combining storytelling, traditional music, and percussive dance, entitled Banjo Dancing. The show opened in Chicago in May 1979 where it ran for thirteen months, including a Labor Day performance at the White House. In January 1981, Wade brought Banjo Dancing to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Although he was initially booked for three weeks, his engagement there ran ten years.
In 1986, Wade appeared in the public television documentary The Unquiet Library, a study of the Library of Congress’s music division. This led the following year to his writing and narrating Catching the Music, a celebration of the banjo and its learning.
On the Way Home, Wade’s second critically acclaimed theatre show, opened in 1989 in Washington, D.C. In the early ‘90s, he took both shows on the road. In 1993, Wade received the Joseph Jefferson award for his Chicago run of On the Way Home. A five-time Helen Hayes award nominee, in 2003, Wade received the Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur award as composer, adaptor, and musical director for the world premiere of Zora Neale Hurston’s Polk County.
His essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in such publications as American Music, ARSC Journal, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Studies in Popular Culture, Encyclopedia of Chicago, Musical Quarterly, American Archivist, Southern Quarterly, Journal of Country Music, New Letters, Beloit Magazine, Folklife Center News, Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post’s Book World.
Stephen Wade has also written a book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (which includes a companion CD), published in August 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. This 504-page study grows out of his 1997 Rounder collection, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. In turn, that album gave rise to his folksong commentaries that have aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. In fall 2013, the book received the ASCAP Deems Taylor award and the Association for Recording Sound Recordings (ARSC) award for Best History in the category of Folk, Ethnic, or World Music.
In September 2012, Wade released Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition on Smithsonian Folkways. The album explores musical knowledge passed across the generations. Wade (accompanied by Mike Craver, Russ Hooper, Danny Knicely, James Leva, and Zan McLeod) calls upon various instruments and styles to mine new creative possibilities that tradition affords us all. The album was nominated in the Best Album Notes category for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards.
- Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40208 (2012).
- Dancing In the Parlor. County COCD 2721 (1997).
- Dancing Home. Flying Fish FF 70543 (1990).
- Hobart Smith, In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40141 (2005). Producer and annotator.
- Tony Ellis, Sounds Like Bluegrass to Me. Copper Creek 0174 (1999). Producer and annotator.
- Various artists, Black Appalachia. Rounder CD 1823 (1999). Annotator.
- Various artists, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. Rounder CD 1500 (1997). Producer and annotator.
- Various artists, The Art of the Banjo. Sonoton SCB 248 (1997). Producer, annotator, and performer.
- Tony Ellis, Farewell My Home. Flying Fish FF 70620 (1993). Producer and annotator.
- Various artists, Authentic America, Vols. I and II. Sonoton SAS 036 and SAS 037 (1990). Producer, annotator, and performer.
- Tony Ellis, Dixie Banner. Flying Fish FF 444 (1987). Producer, annotator, and performer.
- Fleming Brown, Little Rosewood Casket and Other Songs of Joy. Merrywang 1953 (1984). Producer and annotator.
- Harrington, Richard. “Stephen Wade, Trusting in an Unsung Hero.” Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2006.
- Hentoff, Nat. "American Folk Songs, Direct From the Field," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 1997.
- Guarino, Mark. "Stephen Wade Uncovers 'The Beautiful Music All Around Us'," Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 20, 2013.
- Inskeep, Steve. "Stephen Wade and the Banjo." Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Sept. 19, 2003.
- Kalem, T. E. "Pipes of Pan." Time, June 25, 1979.
- Kogan, Rick. "Stephen Wade: A Telling Tale of Making Beautiful Music." Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2013.
- McClain, Buzz. “Stephen Wade, Back to Teach.” Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2006.
- Moss, Mark D. "Stephen Wade." Sing Out! 42, no. 4 (Spring 1998): 76-77.
- "Stephen Wade." Folkstreams. <http://www.folkstreams.net/filmmaker%2C147>.
- Wolfe, Charles K. "The Early Years." In The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Country Music, edited by Bob Allen, 37. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.